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Ramsey Naja: A crisis is not a media channel

By Ramsey Naja, former CCO of JWT

One thing about large-scale crises is that they tend to sharpen people’s built-in cynicism into the kind of instrument prized by meticulous Japanese chefs. And nothing, absolutely nothing, draws that instrument out of its sheath quicker than the whiff of commercial
vested interest.

Here you are, confined for an eternity with a posse of stir-crazy children, turning your spare bedroom into the equivalent of a small neighbourhood Wallmart with a fixation on toilet rolls, trying to work out the minutiae of mask-wearing etiquette while frantically drenching your underwear in disinfectant gel and, hello, here comes Brand X cheerfully inviting you to notice a tenuous connection between its corporate slogan and the need for social distancing. I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of behaviour I find to be not so much in bad taste as simply wrong.

You see, it is one thing to spot an opportunity and quite another to force it down one’s throat with the vicious grace of a paté de fois gras producer. At a time when people are in desperate need of tangible reassurance, the last thing they want is a salesman disguised as a shrink, a headmaster or, worse, a goody two shoes. And what they want even less are brands who, for lack of built-in, long-term purpose, jump on any passing bandwagon that their armies of trend spotters detect (and jump off it the moment it drops down the Twitter rankings) without so much as a meaningful gesture beyond, well, words.

This, in fact, is what years of neglecting the ABCs of brand management has done: most brands today stand for a blank space to be filled with whatever is the cause du jour, for which their communications becomes an excitable spokesperson as long as the audience’s attention span is focused on it.

A global crisis, a pandemic or any cross-cultural unpleasantness is not seen by such people as a call for action: it is treated as media. And this is the heart of the matter. Because unless brands have earned the right to espouse a cause through years of relevant positioning, their right to speak about it can only be obtained through actual, tangible action, with hard currency and profit sacrifice to back it up. Otherwise, they will be no better than perverts who stand for office on a platform of family values. And the moment they are seen as such, it is not surprising to see the very audience they seek cutting them to shreds.